Were this to be a big-budget fiction movie, critics would declare the plot to be absurd: the story of a ship – the largest one ever built – being bombed, completely sunk and then hauled from the seabed and patched up to serve another 21 years.
Strange then, that so few people know the history behind this gargantuan sea vessel – all 564,000 tonnes of her, 50 feet longer than the Empire State Building is high, with a hold that could swallow St Paul’s Cathedral four times over.
She was the largest moving man-made object on the planet.
After languishing in the shipyard for some time, a deal was struck and the vessel was eventually sold to the Chinese founder of Hong Kong Orient Overseas Container Line, C.Y. Tung.
Not content with her already stonking size, Tung had the ship’s length extended a few more feet by way of jumboization – a technique which involves bolting on another section – increasing the capacity by more than 140,000 tonnes.
The Seawise Giant was now 1,500-ft in length and 225-ft in width, record-breakingly large to this day but not the most nimble of ships. She had a two-mile turning circle and it took her more than five miles to stop from her full speed of 16.5 knots, and that was in good weather.
The tanker’s purpose was to transport crude oil between the US and the Middle East, which she did for seven years before she found herself an unexpected target during the Iraq-Iran war in the Eighties.
In May of 1988, while moored off Iran’s Larak Island and loaded with Iranian oil, the Seawise Giant was bombed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces. Unsurprisingly given the flammable nature of her cargo, the whole tanker raged with fire and sank to the ocean bed.
Despite being declared a total write-off, the decaying Seawise Giant was rescued by a Norwegian company a year later, at the end of the war, re-floated and towed to Singapore for major repairs – with 3,700 tonnes of new steel being replaced in the process.
Her optimistic new owners, Norman International, renamed her the ‘Happy Giant’ and by October 1991 she was back in operation.
Shipping magnate Jørgen Jahre purchased her for £30million (the equivalent of £45.3million in today’s money) and once again renamed her, this time the ‘Jahre Viking’. The mighty tanker resumed her duty ferrying oil for the next 10 years, sailing under the Norwegian flag under the command of a surprisingly small 40-man crew.
There came a point however, when her size was proving more of a burden than a triumph. We’ve seen this happening with aircraft models too. The Airbus A380, for example, which launched as the world’s largest passenger plane in 2005, has been not nearly as popular as hoped, with many airlines today opting instead for smaller, more efficient models. Bigger, it would seem, is not always better when it comes to transport.
Aside from her enormous fuel consumption another major problem was that the Jahre Viking was simply too long and cumbersome to enter many of the world’s key ports, as well as the English Channel, Egypt’s Suez Canal and the Panama Canal. Fully loaded, she would sit 80 feet beneath the ocean’s surface.
In 2004, her seafaring days were over when she was sold to Norway’s First Olsen Tankers. This time, she was renamed ‘Knock Nevis’ and operated as a stationary storage facility for tanks at Qatar’s Al Shaheen oil field.
Six years later in 2010, after a stellar 30-year career, the world’s largest ship was sold for scrap to an Indian breaking yard in Gujarat, where it took tens of thousands of workers more than a year to strip her down and sell the parts.
All that remains, somewhat poetically, is the vessel’s 36-tonne anchor, which remains on display at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.
Captain Surrinder Kumar Mohan, who commanderd the tanker when she was the Jahre Viking, told Turbine Tanker at the time: “I’ve been attached with this giant vessel for the last ten years. To my great regret, I do not think another vessel of the size of Jahre Viking will ever be built.”
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